Empathy is the key to our success as a species, so why are so many leaders psychopaths?
The Darwinian idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ is often twisted into an argument for a highly individualistic, every-man-for-himself approach to society. It’s a misrepresentation of his work anyway, but in an ironic twist, it turns out caring is the strength that made us the fittest.
Neuroscience is demonstrating that humans are successful as a species because we evolved the capacity for empathy. It’s rather beautiful: a critical moment in the evolution of humans was the development of the ability to live in groups and cooperate for survival. We developed neurons in the brain that enable us to feel how other people feel, and that enabled us to learn to communicate and cooperate.
The ability to empathise—to feel how another person feels—is a spectrum and the other end is psychopathy. Psychopaths understand feelings intellectually, and they are often experts at reading other people’s feelings (and exploiting them) but they don’t feel them. Psychopaths lack empathy: the parts of the brain that govern empathy are either under-developed or under-used.
Psychopaths aren’t born that way. Humans develop the empathy systems in the brain after they are born, through interaction with other humans. It’s a key part of development from birth to around age four.
Societies that have a strong belief in individualism tend to have more psychopaths as a percentage of the population than societies that are more collectively focused. According to David Gillespie, who is currently promoting his new book on dealing with psychopaths in the workplace, the USA and Australia have higher rates than many Western countries, and you only need to look at the current governments in both countries to find that believable: they are filled with people who have no regard for the suffering of other humans.
One area where Trump is genuinely exceptional is on the psychopath spectrum, he even outscores Hitler.
The question is, why do we keep ending up with people like that as leaders? Answer: we have this bullshit myth that leadership has things in common with psychopathy. Like this quote from a story about Trump’s psychopathic tendencies: “In a political leader, a few psychopathic traits may not be a bad thing: Many of the traits we seek in leaders, such as fearlessness, dominant behaviour, and immunity to stress, are found in psychopaths” Business Insider.
The idea those traits are desirable in people who have power over us needs challenging. Dominant behaviour is just another term for intimidation. Psychopaths are fearless because they don’t give a shit about consequences. They are immune to stress because they don’t care.
We need leaders who have great feeling for their fellow humans. You make life and death decisions, you better care. We would not witness obscenities like politicians cheering when they win a vote to take away services from people if we did not have psychopaths in parliament.
Psychopaths become leaders because they have no qualms about using whatever leverage they can get over someone for their personal gain. As we have witnessed with Trump and the GOP and Abbott/Turnbull and the LNP, they are not interested in leading, just having power. They have no vision, they just lurch from scheme to scheme, wheeling and dealing to try and manipulate the situation.
We shouldn’t confuse correlation with causation. Yes, people with those traits become leaders but those traits don’t make them leaders. Those traits make them able to lie and cheat and bully their way into positions of power.
We need to reset our default image of a leader. UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is hugely popular with millions of people from many walks of life because they aren’t pawns in a game to him, they are humans with lives that matter. Political commentators couldn’t see that because they buy into and promote the myth that leadership is cold-hearted “tough”ness. Likewise, in Australia: Abbott acted like a schoolboy thug in opposition and the commentariat praised him. Trump lied and bullied his way through his campaign but the entire Republican Party got behind him and millions of Americans voted for him.
Far from psychopathic tendencies being suitable traits for leaders, it’s arguable that psychopaths are an evolutionary throw back, from before we got the social upgrade to empathy. Psychopaths are our primitive selves, dragging us back into the distant past before we evolved the ability to cooperate and care for each other, when it really was dog-eat-dog.
The good news for psychopaths is it seems compassion can be taught. Perhaps we can teach some of the old dogs to think of people other than themselves. We’ll send them to a farm somewhere, far away from anyone they can hurt, and train them to be kind. To be honest, I don’t really care. But can we please stop voting for them as leaders?